The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


August 30, 2012

Drought-stricken farmers forced to sell off cattle

IBERIA, Mo. — Cattle rancher Greg Lee and his family usually have an incredible view of central Missouri hills and pastures from their home. But this year is unusual.

Beyond the back deck there’s a bone-dry pond that looks like the surface of another planet. There’s no grass in the fields to feed 400 head of cattle. Even well beyond the view, Missouri’s pastures are in worse condition than any other state in the continental U.S., according to a study of national statistics.

“It’s like the whole world is tan,” said Lee, 44. “This is something guys my age haven’t ever seen before.”

Missouri is second only to Texas in the number of farms - 106,500 - because of small cow-calf operations in rugged parts of the state. Now, as the historic drought continues, scant hay, bald pastures and heavy heat are pressuring many farmers in the state’s $3.6 billion cattle industry to thin their herds because they can’t feed all of the animals and make a profit.

Hit-and-miss drizzle over the weekend didn’t help, and it’s unclear whether remnants of Tropical Storm Isaac will have much of an effect. Meteorologists say it would take anywhere from 9 to 15 inches of rain over an extended period of time to mitigate Missouri’s drought conditions.

The drought, which hit in May, has grown in intensity, with virtually the entire state considered to have “extreme” drought conditions.

Only the leaves look alive, which Lee said has led some ranchers old enough to remember previous droughts to cut down undesirable trees to feed cows. Lee hasn’t tried that, but he and many other farmers are dipping into dwindling stacks of hay.

One evening last week, Lee loaded a big round bale on the back of a pickup and unrolled the hay in the dry pasture. An aggressive parade of cows, calves and a few bulls vied for the fresh food.

He keeps a careful inventory, as hay is usually fed when there are snow flurries, not 90-degree heat. For now, Lee expects to sell off half the herd so the other half can have food for the winter.

“It makes you want to break down and cry,” he said, “but it wouldn’t do no good.”

Though there is stress, continued high beef prices will keep most players in the game, said Ron Plain, an agriculture economist at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has studied national statistics on pasture conditions.

But he added: “A lot of cattlemen are going to have to change what they do.”

Farmers can either find a way to feed animals through the winter with hopes of green pastures in spring - or sell their livestock now.

Feeding is not an easy option. After good hay crops in recent years, there is precious little to buy today. Drought conditions ravaged the latest cut in June. Last year, desperate farmers in Texas, dealing with a drought there, bought hay in Missouri and other states. Meanwhile, feed corn is expensive, with corn and soybeans trading at record highs.

There’s not much for the cattle to graze on in fields, with the double punch of high heat and little rain. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Monday, 1 percent of Missouri pastures were rated “fair”; the remaining 99 percent were considered “poor” or “very poor.”

Water has also been hard to find as many creeks, ponds and wells have gone dry.

“If we get some rain in the next two or three weeks, it would make a lot of difference,” said Ken Chitwood, 65, a farmer near Rolla, Mo. “We are hoping this hurricane, if it comes far enough west, feeds moisture into the air in this area.”

Scott Truett, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said it was too soon to tell how much rain Isaac will bring to Missouri and to which parts of the state.

If it brings significant rainfall to the region, he said, “that could recharge rivers and ponds to a certain extent. But the deficit is so large that it’s going to take several rainfalls over several weeks and months to get us back to more normal conditions.”

Despite sell-offs, cattle prices have been stable because inventory is relatively small. The 97.8 million national cattle population nationally is the lowest in decades, according USDA figures.

Plain said consumers should expect to pay less for ground beef in the second half of 2012, as slaughterhouses buy up older, less productive cows that farmers don’t want to pay to feed. But a smaller herd of cows means fewer calves being born to replace them, leading to expected higher prices for beef in 2013 and 2014.

Farmers, of course, would like to ride the wave of good prices.

“Cattlemen don’t want to part with their cows, but you gotta find something for them to eat,” Plain said. “And if you can’t, you gotta sell. There is a limit on how skinny they can get. They stop reproducing.”

Last week, Missouri sale barns from Farmington to Joplin were packed with more cattle than usual. In Vienna, David Patton, co-owner of South Central Regional Stockyards, stood center ring as hundreds of cattle were auctioned off.

“They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t dry!” Patton yelled to the crowd about six healthy heifers.

Regarding a different, skinnier, lot, he yelled: “That’s what you call sorry!”

Sale observers said the cattle, typically sold by weight, were 10 to 15 percent lighter than normal, which can be the difference between a profit and a loss.

Many of the cattle were headed to slaughterhouses, but other buyers shipped animals to places such as northern Missouri to feed on corn silage salvaged from a ruined corn crop.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in July announced a program to help farmers get water by deepening wells and other options. Nearly 6,000 applications were approved, totaling about $29 million in assistance.

One farmer, Jeff Hendley, was recently approved. Though many of the cattle being sold off are older, Hendley dumped a third of his herd, about 20 cows, recently at the Interstate Regional Stockyards in Cuba, Mo. He said some of the cows were young ones he wished he could keep.

“No grass, no hay, no water,” said Hendley, 28. “We’ve held off as long as we could hoping it would rain, and it hasn’t rained. A lot of us are getting rid of a third or half and going to try to make it until spring.”

He got a fair price for what he sold last Tuesday night, but he looked to the loss of future returns.

“I won’t be able to sell 20 calves off those 20 cows next year,” he said.

Lee, the farmer in Iberia, started raising cattle as a teenager when his grandfather gave him five calves. Ever since, he’s been trying to pick good bulls and keep the best young cows to add to the herd, which has grown to about 400. There is nearly three decades’ worth of genetics that he plans to tap into and sell.

Watching a slew of his cattle lick black troughs clean, Lee pointed to a brown calf standing in the dirt with a green No. 7 ear tag.

“It’s three months old and probably never seen green grass in its life,” he said. “Probably never been rained on real good.”

He and others are praying that Isaac comes into the Midwest and lays it on hard. At this point, so late in the growing season, he doesn’t expect significant pasture regrowth.

But, he said, heavy rain would raise everybody’s spirits, and add water to empty ponds.


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